Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Unpacking China

This week Scott Morrison was given a lesson in the sort of diplomacy needed to deal with China, the bully that also happens to be our biggest trading partner. It was a jarring reminder, on the cusp of an election year, that the almost decade-old Coalition government is no longer fit for purpose. Especially if that purpose is to further Australia’s peace and prosperity in the wider region.

The visiting South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, is no stranger to China’s trade coercion, but he doesn’t use chest-beating or a megaphone to deal with it. At his joint news conference with Morrison he said Seoul will not be joining Australia or the United States in a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. He revealed the US had not asked Korea to join it, which gives weight to the perception Canberra under this government is a cloying client state of Washington rather than a sovereign actor.

President Moon was very keen to distance himself from Australia’s self-defeating bluntness in its relations with the world superpower. He said his official visit has nothing to do “with our position over China”. Far from being a threat, Moon said, China was important to secure “the peace and prosperity” of the Korean peninsula.

Of course, there is no way we can ignore the impact of China’s decision to put Australia in the diplomatic deep freeze in 2020 and to impose trade sanctions on us that saw our exporters lose billions of dollars. But instead of embarking on a diplomatic offensive to repair the relationship, the prime minister and his Defence minister, Peter Dutton, decided it was in their domestic political interests to raise the prospect of war with China.

How they could think that old fears about the “yellow peril” invading from the north would still resonate in multicultural 21st-century Australia is something of a mystery. Nonetheless, they press on in a sure sign they are desperate to grab anything that could save their political hides. Never mind that we are more than happy to continue selling billions
of tonnes of iron ore to our biggest customer.

There are echoes of an older history here, if they are really serious about any threat. The founder of the Liberal Party, Robert Menzies, earned the nickname “Pig Iron Bob” for being part of a government that exported pig iron to Japan in 1938 despite the protests of many, including unions at Port Kembla. Imperial Japan returned our raw material value-added and with interest when it bombed Darwin and sent midget submarines into Sydney Harbour.

This time around, Dutton says it would be “inconceivable” that Australia not “join” a war over Taiwan. It’s a febrile ramping up of a scenario that the US president, Joe Biden, did not push in his virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In fact, Biden adhered to the “one-China” policy in regard to Taiwan, which is also Australia’s formal position.

Australia’s rush to be one of the first out of the blocks to join Washington in a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics is, according to the director of the Australia–China Relations Institute, James Laurenceson, “a dumbed-down approach to China”. He considers it as a lost opportunity to begin some diplomatic repair.

The respected China specialist sees parallels with our overenthusiastic willingness to join the Trump administration in attacking China over the pandemic. Indeed, he says Dutton’s leap into the fray immediately on his return from Washington last year was the trigger for Beijing’s trade retaliation.

But while Dutton and Morrison were ingratiating themselves to Trump, the Americans were eating Australia’s lunch. For example, in the first nine months of the year China’s imports of beef from Australia dived by $US494 million compared with 2019. At the same time, American beef sales to China rose by $US1.2 billion. In fact, even before the Wuhan fiasco, Trump’s so-called trade war with China saw billions of dollars in our grains and some commodities exports lost to the US. Strategic and defence expert Hugh White says “it just shows you in trade there are no allies, just competitors”.

Morrison blames China for the deterioration in relations. He says he’s willing to talk but no one in Beijing will pick up the phone. In this he is expressing the views of an increasing number of Australians, according to the latest Lowy Institute research.

Certainly, a more assertive President Xi has Australians less trusting of China, and while Labor is critical of the government’s diplomatic ineptness, it has backed the Olympic boycott. Deputy opposition leader Richard Marles was quick to support Dutton in their Friday tango on the Channel Nine breakfast show Today. He said it was right for the international community to use its voice against the human rights abuses towards the Uygurs. Both sides of our politics are blind to Australia’s abuse of human rights in regard to First Nations people and asylum seekers, as China has pointed out on more than one occasion.

In a recent speech Labor’s Foreign Affairs shadow minister, Penny Wong, accused the Morrison–Joyce government of using foreign affairs and national security for political advantage. Wong says a “shameless example” was when Morrison was asked about the French president calling him a liar. She said the prime minister proved the point “by telling a new lie, fabricating that the Labor leader backed in the Chinese government and a number of others in having a crack at me as well”.

Wong says it’s true that China has changed and our relationship has become harder to manage. “But,” she says, “desperately playing politics on China whenever he’s in trouble does nothing to strengthen Mr Morrison’s authority.”

As crucial as China is to our national interest – two-way trade amounts to $246.3 billion annually, 3.4 times the amount of the second-placed US – the issue is not captivating voters. Australians are still too distracted by the pandemic.

Labor’s campaign director, Paul Erickson, told the last meeting of caucus the electorate is “tired and fatigued after two years of Covid”. Some took his message as saying the electorate was looking for stability not change. This is not the message Anthony Albanese took from the party’s research, however. He believes Australians are looking for a fresh approach – something new and different – but they are in no mood for a radical agenda.

The Labor leader refined this into his pitch at the first campaign-style rally. He said he was “asking Australians to choose a new direction for this country. But we are seeking renewal – not revolution.” This can be applied to a range of key issues where Morrison appears to be on the wrong side of the argument – climate change and integrity in government being the most obvious.

But among diplomatic and business circles the belief is a change of government could be the circuit-breaker Australia needs to reset relations with Beijing. Laurenceson says it is the only chance on the horizon for a face-saving opportunity in which leaders from both countries could reconnect.

But disconcerting party strategists on both sides of politics is the pandemic, the one issue that has been totally dominating for the past two years. Its mammoth costs were on display in the Mid-Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook and, as the midweek infections in New South Wales soared back above 1000 a day, this crisis is far from over. In focus groups voters are obsessed with it above everything, telling researchers their biggest concern is to “get rid of Covid”.

While Morrison was cheering on the NSW government for lifting restrictions on the unvaccinated and ditching masks, the state Health minister, Brad Hazzard, was warning that infections could hit 25,000 by the end of January thanks to the rampantly infectious Omicron variant.

It’s as if no one is noticing what is happening in Boris Johnson’s Britain. “Crazy” was the reaction of a key Labor strategist. Lockdowns are ruled out here while they are being seriously contemplated again there. Morrison made a half-hearted confession this week that he had made mistakes, but said “all governments do in a pandemic”.

He didn’t admit to coming late to the party on practically every issue, from vaccines to quarantine to economic support. His boast that Australia is now doing better than anywhere else could well ring very hollow by the time the election rolls around. Based on the experience in Britain, a March election before the colder months lead to a spike in infections could be the prime minister’s safest bet.

Meanwhile, the borders are opening and both leaders are free to campaign everywhere except Western Australia. Morrison’s first ports of call in Queensland were to his marginal Liberal seats in Brisbane. Albanese’s foray was mainly in Liberal marginals, too, in Queensland and Tasmania. It tells you a lot. The Liberal leader is on the defensive the Labor leader is on the hunt. The prime minister clearly fears that voters are noticing his tired government has run out of puff.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 18, 2021 as "Unpacking China".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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